Very Irresistible Violets

Very Irresistible Violets

Violets herald the warm days of spring and the promise of summer to come

The sight of a bank of dainty little violets in spring is surely a sign that gladdens the heart and announces that spring has finally sprung and summer is just around the corner. The two most common native species are the Dog-violet (Viola riviana) and the Sweet-violet (Viola odorata). Both the Dog-violet and the Sweet-violet are widespread throughout the UK but the Sweet-violet is less common in northwest England and Wales. They flower from March to May. The Dog-violet has bluish-purple flowers and heart-shaped leaves in common with the Sweet-violet, which can also have white flowers and is sweetly scented. Both love shady wood edges and hedge banks, with humus-rich well-drained soil. The ancient Greeks first made perfume from the Sweet-violet and the Romans used the flowers for making wine. In the language of flowers they stand for humbleness and modesty. 

They are an important food source for some of Britain’s rarest butterflies: the High Brown Fritillary (Argynnis adippe), Dark Green Fritillary (Argynnis aglaja) and the Small Pearl-bordered Fritillary (Boloria selene). They feed the larvae of the Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia) and provide nectar for the Orange-tip Butterfly (Anthocharis cardamines). The range of the wild violets has been severely restricted by the agricultural reforms of the mid 20th C, which saw a huge decrease in their hedgerow habitat.

Lane and hedgerow, Lyth Valley

Planted in a woodland garden they will soon spread and form large clumps. They can be raised from seed sown in autumn or spring; you may have to seek out a specialist supplier as they are not usually available in the garden centre. Plants are sometimes available through your local supplier if they stock wild flowers, if not they are readily available by mail order. Before planting sprinkle a little bone meal in the planting hole; they will also benefit from an application of a mycorrhizal fungi, such as Rootgrow. Try planting with primroses and wild strawberries as they all share the same habitat in the wild. They hate the hot drying sun so if you don’t have a woodland or hedge bottom for them try planting in a north facing shady position.

They are easily grown in pots; use a medium sized pot 15 – 23cm (6 – 9”), put a layer of crocks in the bottom and use John Innes No 2 compost. Unless you want to increase your stock just cut off the runners as they will take energy away from flower production.

There are a lot of hybrids bred from these violets or similar; the bedding violas, Devon violets and Parma violets. Everyone knows the bedding violas, they are cheap, cheerful, hardy and come in a large range of single colours, duo colours and speckled. There is nothing easier than planting up a container in winter and spring with these bright, jaunty little gems.

Bedding violas

The Devon violets were once farmed on a huge scale and sent into London for posies. In 1938 there were about 200 acres of them grown around Dawlish, employing a large number of people. The Second World War saw production plummet in favour of food. It revived slightly after the war, but posies went out of fashion and other exotic flowers started to be imported and now production is restricted to a few specialist nurseries. They are slightly larger than V. odorata and scentless but if you want violets for cut flowers then they are ideal.

The Parma violet appeared in Italy in the 16th C and was introduced by the Bourbons, after which it spread throughout Europe. It is thought to be a hybrid as it hasn’t been found in the wild, but its origins are unclear. It is a sweetly scented double violet, but is not hardy. They are better grown in pots as they need to be brought into a cool frost free greenhouse for winter. Put them outside somewhere shady in summer, bring them into the greenhouse at the beginning of October and start feeding with a high potash liquid feed, such as Tomorite. They should flower from autumn to spring. When they are flowering either treat them as a cut flower or bring the pot into the house.

“The pansy and the violet, too sweet, we thought those days to last
The gentle mother by the door caresses still her lilac blooms,
And as we wander back once more we seem to smell the old perfume
We seem to live again the joys that once were ours so long ago”

From ‘The Lanes of Memory’ by Edgar Albert Guest 


Angela Slater

Daughter of a farmer and market gardener so have always had a connection with the outdoors, whether it was keeping animals or producing fruit, vegetables and cut flowers. Along with my work at Hayes Garden World I also have a smallholding, mainly breeding rare breed pigs. I gained an HND and BSc in Conservation and Environmental Land Management, as a result I am an ardent environmentalist and have a keen interest in environmentally friendly gardening. In my time at Hayes I worked for several years in the Outdoor Plant and Houseplant areas.